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Women of Mystery and Suspense Part 1

Updated on February 5, 2014

I enjoy reading mystery/suspense/crime novels. My enjoyment of reading mysteries started when I was young with Nancy Drew books. From the light mystery with some romance and laughs to the hard-boiled detective stories they are great reads.

Women write almost half of all mystery fiction. Many of the most famous detective novelist are women. Today's mystery and crime stories emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with male writers. Metta Fuller Victor (published as Seeley Regester) published the first detective novel in 1966; "The Dead Letter". Metta published almost a hundred books and during her life she published many books on social ills and dime novels (usually paperback cheap melodramatic or sensational novel).

In 1878, Anna Katherine Green published her first mystery "The Leavenworth Case." I like that Anna published her novels under her own name. She was an American writer, one of first successful female writers in the mystery/detective genre and is known as "The Mother of the Detective Novel". Anna was a prolific writer (published from 1878-1923) and was instrumental in shaping the classic detective fiction and influenced future women to become mystery writers.

With a veteran police detective Gryce, Anna Katherine Green would add the first female amateur-detective in her stories with an elderly nosy spinster; Miss Amelia Butterworth. A model that echoes through time with mystery stories from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to P.D. James’s Cordelia Gray. In short stories, Anna would introduce the first fictional female detective series with Violet Strange a prototype of the 'girl detective’ and an inspiration for Nancy Drew stories and other female detective stories.

Dame Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie | Source

The Golden Age

Agatha Christie revealed, in later years, that she turned to writing mysteries after having been influenced by the work of Anna Katharine Green. Agatha Christie emerged as a mystery writer during the Golden Age of mystery fiction.

The Golden Age was a time between WWI and WWII, not only a time but also a style of writing; cozy mystery novels. The cozy mystery novels are whodunits that are puzzle- and plot- driven stories; usually ‘gentle’ stories with little graphic violence, little profanity, or explicit sex; it’s implied (although many of today’s authors might include those elements in their cozy novel). With intriguing storylines that invites the reader to solve the mystery ahead of the brilliant detective. There are many red herrings along the way to provide distracting clues. The crime and suspects are usually of the same social group. The motive of the crime is personal and within the context, rational. An intellectual game and challenge that is solved by wit. A common setting of the cozy mystery story is an English country house or London with upper-class inhabitants.

Ngaio March
Ngaio March | Source

Agatha Christie would perfect the cozy style with her Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot and later Miss Jane Marple. British writers and British detectives dominated the Golden Age period. The four Queens of Crime of the Golden age cozy fiction are: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh (her detective was British).

Dorothy L. Sayers first mystery in 1923 introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, a detective with style and intelligence that was a blending of P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster and the dapper (dancer and actor) Fred Astaire. . Margery Allingham published in 1929 her creation of the aristocratic detective; Albert Campion. Ngaio Marsh, born in New Zealand moved as an adult to England, in 1932 began publishing her detective series with the likeable police detective Roderick Alleyn who is urbane and sophisticated. There are many writers of cozy mysteries from Dorothy Gillman's Mrs. Pollifax, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series, and The Cat Who series by Lillian Jackson Braun. Into the 1950’s and 1960’s cozy mysteries were published and are still being written and published today.

Mary Roberts Rinehart
Mary Roberts Rinehart | Source

The American Agatha Christie

Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), novelist, playwright, mystery novelist, first female World War I correspondent in Belgium, a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, and helped two of her sons found a publishing house (Farrar & Rinehart), her family name continues on in Holt, Rinehart, & Winston publishers. In 1947, Ladies Home Journal published an interview with Mary about her breast cancer (at this time such matters were not openly discussed) "I Had Cancer", were Mary encouraged women to have breast examinations.

Mary Roberts Rinehart published her first mystery in 1908, fourteen years before Agatha Christie published her first mystery novel, and many people refer to Mary as "The American Agatha Christie". Mary Rinehart wrote many types of books that became best sellers, but the ones enjoyed and highly regarded were her murder mysteries. She is credited with the "Had-I-But-Known" mysteries. Where the heroine (yes usually a female) is always getting into dangerous situations with a foreshadowing of impending danger or key pieces of evidence are kept from police with the thought that the police would not believe that person did the crime without solid proof.


Her mysteries are a combination of adventure, detection, and tales of suspense. She is credited with the phrase "The butler did it," although that phrase never appeared in any of her books. Her novel "The Door” was adapted into a musical; “The Butler Did It” and that is where that phrase comes from.

Bob Kane (one of the creators of superhero Batman) cited the film (based on Mary Roberts Rinehart's mystery novel "The Circular Staircase") "The Bat Whispers" mysterious villain "The Bat" as one of the inspirations for his Batman comic character. In 1940, the poet Ogden Nash satirized the mystery novelist of the Had I but Known school in his poem "Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You" polished in The New Yorker. Mary Roberts Rinehart is known for the Had-I-But-Known mysteries that many writers male and female still use today. Many Golden Age mystery writers used the HIBK style: Zenith Brown writing as Leslie Ford, Mignon Eberhart, Margaret Armstorng, and Anita Blackmon.

Mary Robert Rinehart books are available free online at Literature Network.

Mary Roberts Rinehart novels at ManyBooks can be downloaded in many different formats for free.

LibriVox has many Mary Robert Rinehart audiobooks (by volunteer readers) for free.

While the Golden Age Cozy mystery novels were on the rise in the 1920's another type of mystery genre was taking shape in America; the Hard-Boiled or crime novel.


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